Panaromic view of Cuandixia Village

The main places of interest on the must-see lists for visitors to Beijing usually include historical sites such as the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven.  After all, the metropolis' exotic charm lies in these vestiges of the Middle Kingdom's ancient capital.  For visitors with more than a week on hand in Beijing, the ancient Cuandixia Village (爨底下村) is an off-the-beaten-track option that is worth considering for a day trip outside the city for a glimpse into the ancient village life then.

Located 90km (56 miles) west of the city centre, Cuandixia Village boasts as one of the last remaining well-preserved villages dating from the late-Ming (1368-1644), early-Qing (1644-1911) era.   Nestled within a valley of the Taixing (太行) Mountain Range at an altitude of 650m, the village enjoys cool weather throughout the year.  Loosely translated as "village below Cuan", it was so named because of its location downhill from the Ming dynasty military post called "Cuanli Ankou (爨里安口).  Around 1958, the first character in the village's name was simplified into 川, as in "川底下村" (pronounced "Chuandixia", meaning "village below the valley").

The original Chinese character in the village's name

The village founders were a family clan by the surname of Han (韩) from the inland province of Shanxi.  The Han family's move was believed to coincide with the mass migration (around 1403-1424) which resulted from Ming ruler Zhu Li's decision to move the capital to Beijing from Nanjing (in southern province of Jiangsu).  Then, farmers, soldiers and artisans from neighboring provinces were encouraged to relocate to vicinities around Beijing to provide labor for the new capital.  According to records in the village's ancestral hall, some 20 generations of the Han family had since resided in the village.

Cuandixia owed its heyday as a bustling trade post to its location on a strategic military pass as well as the capital's main arterial access to the inland provinces such as Shanxi and Inner Mongolia.  During the second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), the village suffered extensive losses; numerous lives were lost and many of its structures burnt down.  With the completion of the Fengsha Rail Line and Highway 109 in the 1950s, Cuandixia gradually lost its significance on the inland trade route.  As a result, most of the villagers turned to farming.  In the 1980s, with the opening up of China's economy, most of the youths left the village for the cities to find work.  During its peak, the village boasted more than 100 households.  Today, only 13 households remain.  Ironically, it was this decline that ensured that time stood still in this 500-year-old village; the remaining villagers simply lacked the wherewithal to modernize their homes.

Village Lodgings
Down the village path

Cuandixia's revival in recent years was sparked off by the Chinese people's renewed interest in ancient sites.  In recognition of its historical and cultural value, the village was accorded "ancient cultural relic protection" status by the Chinese national government.  Fortunately, owing to its inaccessibility and relatively lower profile, the village has yet to be taken over by the rampant commercialization typically observed in most Chinese places of interest.

Against its bucolic backdrop of terraced orchards and fields, this hamlet of 76 original Ming- and Qing-style courtyard houses perched on a hillside exudes an undeniable rustic charm.  Walking along the winding lanes and cliff-side paths is akin to a trip down China's historical corridor.  For apart from its ancient rural beauty, the village is also where one can still find Maoist wall slogans that have yet to be whitewashed by time.  Some of the choice poetry daubing the village walls included "Long Live Chairman Mao" and "Uphold Maoist Ideology".  Visitors are free to meander through the narrow lanes between the courtyard houses and wonder into any courtyard that is not sealed up.  And as one ascends the terraced paths, one will discover more abandoned and derelict structures and an even more outstanding surrounding view.  Today, to woo the tourist dollars, the villagers have also flung open the doors of their ancient homesteads to visitors, offering simple home-cooked farm fare and overnight "village lodging" to anyone game for the experience.

Fortune sign

Some of the main highlights in the village include the Guangliang Courtyard (广亮院) which is located on highest point of the village's central pathway and the Guandi Shrine (关帝庙).  Guangliang Courtyard (loosely translated as "Wide and Bright Courtyard") is a showcase of the typical architectural layout of an ancient courtyard house and which is adorned with ornate timber carvings and cornices, reflecting its former owner's esteemed status in the village.  Built in 1715 and named after a deitified general from the Warring States era, the Guandi Shrine is where the villagers prayed for good harvests and good health, and carried out their ancestral rites.

For sunny and verdant scenery, the best period to visit Cuandixia Village is from April to October.  A brisk hike along the village's main pathways would take approximately 2 hours.  The more adventurous visitors may wish to wonder beyond the village compound along any of the numerous faint trekking trails.  In particular, the valley's upper reaches provide superior vantage points of the adjacent mountain ranges.  Meal-wise, those who are less keen to try Chinese-style farm-fare may wish to pack some picnic lunches since there is obviously no convenience store in the village.

Hanging corns

Getting there:

Cuandixia Village is not easily accessible.  If budget is not an issue, it will be wise to hire a chauffeur and car from Beijing to drive to the village.  Each journey should take approximately 2.5 hours (driving at a comfortable and safe speed).  The drive will bring you through gorgeous ribbons of meandering mountain roads, some of which can be hair-raisingly narrow.  Aside from the obvious ease and comfort, if time permits, travelling by car will also allow visitors to make a side trip on the return journey to Tanzhesi (潭柘寺), the capital's oldest Buddhist temple that boasts 1700 years of history.

The village can also be reached via public transport.  Take bus 929 from the Beijing Pingguoyuan Metro Station and alight at the Zhaitang stop.  The bus ride will take approximately 2 hours.  From Zhaitang, hail a taxi; the fare will cost approximately 20 renminbi.  However, be wary of taxi touts and be prepared to pay more during weekends and holiday seasons.  

Regardless of your mode of transport, it is always best to start off early in the morning.  The mountain roads are notoriously congested in the latter part of the day due to truckers who are avoiding the toll roads.

Down the village path(72084)